Peacemaking around a Campfire
It was one of those terribly tangled days. Something went wrong and, when that was sorted out, something else went wrong, and so the story continued. I got through it all but, by late afternoon, I felt pretty ragged. Then the taxi was 45 minutes late. Eventually I reached the All Nations Café and things changed as I stepped into the tranquil setting of a nature reserve.
All Nations is not a physical café but a regular peace-building meeting in the Rephaim Valley at a deserted Palestinian village called Ein Haniya, northwest of Bethlehem. The valley is lined with derelict agricultural terraces going back millennia – a Jewish lady told me that when the Hebrews came in the time of Joshua, the valley-bottoms were occupied by Canaanites, and the Hebrews settled the hilltops, building farming terraces down the hillsides. Jewish hilltop-bagging has a long history.
Dhyan, a genial and freethinking Israeli ex-soldier and peacemaker, runs the group, with the help of his friends. They persuaded the Israeli army, government and local Palestinian landowners to permit the project to meet at Ein Haniya, in a nature reserve in a kind of no-man’s-land which, thanks to a fluke in history, was neither clearly part of Israel nor the West Bank. The group helped stall the building of a separation wall across the valley, backing the original Palestinian residents in retaining their land rights even though they were no longer permitted to live there. Meetings are held monthly around an outdoor campfire, with ‘talking circles’ involving people from both sides and of all persuasions. Dhyan busily rushes around making a fire, brewing coffee, providing snacks and getting the group going.
Poor chap, he came under fire that evening. The circle was full of Palestinians. Of the two other Israelis, one disappeared before things properly started and the other said her bit and soon left, saying she had an appointment. This struck people as stereotypical Israeli arrogance. When various Palestinians expressed their frustration over this, they looked at Dhyan. They weren’t exactly blaming him but, like it or not, he embodied the Israeli nation there and then, being the only Jew present. When his turn came to speak, he pointed out that the previous meeting had had eighteen Israelis and two Palestinians, and the Israelis had been annoyed. There were chuckles and the situation was accepted as an ironic mishap. That’s what peace-building is all about – building up understanding and separating out the threads that create misunderstanding and friction.
Truths had been spoken, and that’s what we were here for. Sometimes in discussion circles, arguments and sticking points arise over the utmost trivialities, but they ventilate deeper questions and boundary issues. If people have an attitude of resolution and they stick with the process, then sooner or later resolution happens.
One man had observed something I too had noticed. Enlightened Israelis tend to take a sociable, genial approach to meeting with Palestinians – they like discussing worthy peace-building issues and this is good. But Palestinians need to talk serious stuff about grievances, difficulties and real life challenges; they suffer greater factual hardships and their need for specific solutions is more existentially pressing. To Israelis, peacemaking is a noble spare-time option, rather like saving the planet is for many people worldwide – important of course, but, well, I’m a bit busy right now...
Many Israeli peace supporters reach out to Palestinians and carry out very brave deeds, but others seem to feel that it’s sufficient to make friends and to overcome the conditioned Israeli belief that Palestinians are dangerous and not entirely human. Again, good, and such people are at least meeting ‘the enemy’. But this is the graciousness of the privileged. Meanwhile Palestinians have real concerns affecting land, prospects, families and future – it’s closer to the bone for them.
There were some powerful sharings. Two Palestinian peacemakers came from Hebron, a conflict hotspot. Hearty people, they made lucid statements about the need for peace. Back in 1994, a settler called Baruch Goldstein had walked into Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque with an automatic rifle, killing 29 and wounding 150 innocent Palestinians, and another 25 died outside in clashes with soldiers, trying to assist those inside. This was a tipping-point announcing the slow death of the Oslo peace process.
Fareed eloquently yet measuredly described how, in most cases, outbursts of conflict were provoked by Israelis, not Palestinians, and he was genuinely vexed about what to do about it. This indeed is true, a pattern recognised by the UN. Such information rarely emerges in the media since Israelis portray themselves as victims who are thus justified in taking pre-emptive military actions. Palestinians, provoked, then make a pained or robust response which, when it meets up with Israeli troops, gets nasty. This of course further reinforces Israelis’ justifications for their actions, proving yet again that Palestinians are savages.
Palestinians are not wholly innocent, and at times they can be politically inastute or emotionally over-reactive. But still, as Naima, the other Hebronite, said, it’s time for Israelis not just to say they believe in peace but to act that way too. Palestinians had complied with the terms of the Oslo and Roadmap agreements far more than Israelis and Israelis oppressed Palestinians far more too. The Palestinians haven’t been invading Israel.
Naima stated movingly that she was willing to spend the rest of her life working to end conflict and to understand Israelis’ viewpoint, because there is no alternative. She mentioned the Holocaust and the anti-Jewish pogroms of 19th and 20th century Europe as valid sources of pain for Israelis. She wished they could be satisfied with what they had gained in recent decades, leaving Palestinians in peace, for Palestinians would respond with peace. She recognised that Jewish suffering was deep and historic, while Palestinian suffering went back just a few generations. Palestinians therefore could forgive more easily, but it wasn’t Palestinians that Jews needed to forgive – it was Europeans.
A former PFLP fighter was more impassioned. The People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine was famous for dramatic plane hijackings in the 1970s. This man had come to peace by the 1990s and he wanted a return to the pre-1967 borders. Most reasonable Palestinians want some variant of this, largely accepting facts and conceding the lands they lost in 1948. They recognise Israelis are here and need a home. But Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their capital – and it’s fine for West Jerusalem to be Jewish. “This is a unique land, and here it is possible for one city, Jerusalem, to be capital of two countries”, said the former fighter.
“I cannot believe people when they talk about peace unless they behave peacefully. This would make me totally committed to peace. Peace should be practiced, not just talked about. Everyone talks about it as a theory. My wife has cancer and she needs to go to hospital in Jerusalem. I cannot get a permit for her because of things I myself did 25 years ago, so she will die. This is an act of war. We Palestinians live like sparrows in a cage, and Israelis treat us according to the propaganda they’re fed. Peace will come only when we really understand each other and our real concerns. We cannot be superficial with each other.”
When my turn came, I talked about being born shortly after WW2 and how, during my lifetime, Britain and Germany had joined in an economic-political union – the impossible was proven possible. I was not proud of my country’s history and the role it played in seeding the Israel-Palestine conflict, neither did I agree with the way Britain and France divided the Middle East into small powerless states. I was here now to help heal some of my country’s role in Palestine’s history.
I talked of my grandfather fighting Germany at the Somme in WW1 and my father in the Libyan desert in WW2, of the Protestant-Catholic strife I grew up with in Liverpool, of the trouble I got into as a peace activist and my involvements with Ulster, Kosovo and exile Tibetans. Time eventually brings peace, but it’s a long historic process – often too long. Tel Aviv and Gaza could in future suffer flooding more than bombing, and this is what we should focus on now. War stops us attending to bigger questions.
There was much nodding, with sincere handshakes afterwards. I hugged the PLFP man and wished him and his wife well. “We must all stand back and see our children’s children’s view”, he said. “We must look at what we share, for all of us are people. Allah helps us and tests us all, teaches us all together.” Here’s a former Marxist talking about God, a former fighter talking peace.
I found myself reflecting on how some of the best people I have met are those who have been criminals, terrorists, drug addicts, alcoholics and sundry sinners – they’ve seen hell and returned changed, committed to doing good. Here’s a former PFLP fighter, and there’s a former IDF soldier, Dhyan. Thank you, Dhyan, for your work bringing people together: you’re a hero, a patriot, a veteran your country should be proud of.
The lift home with the Hebron contingent was welcome. Late-evening Bethlehem was heaving with people under a bright full moon as another day came to an end. Well, not quite: this obsessive blogger stayed up late, chronicling the day. All was quiet by the time I went to bed – just crickets and a peacock stirring the tranquillity that had settled over Al Khader and the Irtas valley.
NEXT: Korea meets Palestine
© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop